Client News

Context Florida: Ed Moore: Why state capitals are better than Washington, D.C.

Friday, March 21, 2014

As one who is tasked with spending time in both Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, and Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, I am often struck by the broad differences in culture, rhythm, processes and style.

Now one might call me a provincial or, if you sought to be derogatory, call me a naïve country bumpkin, but frankly I prefer the rhythm of the state capital — and that is especially true at the beginning of every new legislative session.

In Florida we do not have a constant flow of going in and out of session, in and out of town, nor the strong tides that pull issues to the front pages and off so fast you miss the major issue du jour if you happen to be gone for only a moment. Issues tend to stick around for a while in a state capital — with bites being taken from each apple a little at a time, in multiple committees and in each chamber.

Each governor tends to be much more closely engaged. Even if the governor’s budget gets at least partially ignored, it does set the table for the discussion. In D.C. one gets the feeling that both the president and the Cabinet view Capitol Hill as still having the malarial diseases prevalent in Washington when the capital area was founded — a place to avoid!

Even while the agenda is set by those in control, both minority and majority party members in state capitals all engage in the process and all play a role in committee work, where legislation is actually developed and slowly begins to move through the process.

When bills finally do get to the floor of either chamber, the proponents and the opponents are speaking to a room with people actually sitting in the chamber — some listening, some handling email, occasionally one or two dozing off, but with a quorum required and frequently called for to make sure that a majority is in attendance. Not so in D.C., a place where if one has some idle moments and a guest pass, one can sit and actually see a member speaking to himself or herself, arguing strenuously and passionately about an issue while getting absolutely zero feedback, not even uncomfortable body language, in order to gauge effectiveness in debate.

I was struck by a recent column in The Washington Post, written by retired editor Robert Kaiser, titled, “How Republicans Lost Their Minds, Democrats Lost Their Souls and Washington Lost Its Appeal.”  Kaiser laments much about the transformation of our nation’s capital. He derides the quality of the debate and mainly attacks Republicans for having beliefs differing from his own. But to me his key statement focused on the loss of deeply reasoned discourse as he lamented how real, honest, intellectual debate has faded: “The intellectual firepower in Congress declined sharply during my years in Washington. Lawmakers who read books, have their own ideas, care about policy issues and believe in government have become rarer than Redskins victories,” he wrote.

While those out of power and control often resort to blaming the process and claiming the majority moves in lockstep, I disagree when it comes to state-level politics. When we see votes in state capitals segmented by party lines, in large part it occurs no matter which party is in charge and is mainly driven along philosophical lines.

Those who clamor for the “good old days” — when the Democrats had such large majorities and a divergence of opinion within their party — ignore the true polarization that occurred then along philosophical lines, with the small minority caucus siding often with the moderate to conservative members of the majority. Just going back and reading the House or Senate journals gives a very incorrect picture of what passed for bipartisanship. It was a philosophical partisanship, the same as it is now; only today the thought processes, and the voting, are more clearly aligned with party labels than they once were.

But as a new legislative session continues, it is good to reflect upon how we were and where we are now. Tallahassee is always more energized when the Florida Legislature is in session. Ideas flow like end-of-day libations, with some tastes dominating for a period of time, while others wait patiently hoping to one day move from call and well status to top shelf.

But in this year, the 44th regular session since I first worked for the Florida House of Representatives, I still find hope and joy as the 60-day clock begins to tick, and I still find exhilaration in the process began so many years ago as an experiment in governance.

People from all walks of life come to our capital for 60 days, working hard to serve as the voices of millions of people not present. Each has his or her own story and voice. They work hard for two months, then go back home.

I think that is the target Kaiser missed in dismissing our nation’s capital. Perhaps it is more how we ask our selected representatives to serve and how some in Washington, D.C., lose touch with home. When in Tallahassee, home is never far away, and our halls are filled with people we know from home.

Dorothy had it right: “There is no place like home!”

Ed H. Moore resides in Tallahassee, spends much time in D.C., and like Dorothy realizes, “There is no place like home!” Column courtesy of Context Florida.

« Return to News